July 14th 2001

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COVER: Singapore's economic lessons for Australia

Canberra Observed: Electoral map shows uphill battle for Coalition

Falling fertility debate reignited

Dissenters highlight dangers in UN report

Cloning: how far will states ban go?

Keep the single selling desk for wheat

The Media

Straws in the Wind

Letter: Export figures disputed

Minister resists competition push

Mass destruction in the future

Manufacturing and the sinew of war

Is corporate cost cutting becoming lethal?

French applaud 35-hour week

Books: Colonial Consorts, by Marguerite Hancock

Books: The China Threat - How the People's Republic Targets America, Bill Gertz

Letter: Barley story wrong

Letter: Trade, US-style

Letter: Riddle solved

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Manufacturing and the sinew of war

by Michael Murray

News Weekly, July 14, 2001
Two recent events have sparked interest in defence. The first is the blockbuster movie "Pearl Harbor"; the second is the possible closure of a small munitions factory in the southern NSW border town of Mulwala. Although these two events seem only remotely related, their tales are historically linked.

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the US fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the British in Malaya. Back in Australia, in April 1942 the Mulwala plant was nearing completion. The plant had been first proposed in the Department of Munitions' March 1941 expansion program. This program was initially instigated to supply British and Indian forces in the Far East, and to meet Australia's needs should Japan escalate the war in that theatre and threaten Australia directly.

The Australian Government had long adopted a defence policy of making munitions locally, rather than relying on foreign sources of supply or maintaining a large standing army. Thus, national development and defence policy became complementary and permanently linked.

By 1940 Australia was well on the way to becoming self-sufficient in munitions. The Federal Government had worked closely with BHP and the Collins House group, to exclude the British aeronautics industry, so that a local aircraft manufacturing industry could grow. The Defence Department also, among other initiatives, worked with local companies to force ICI to establish a full chemicals industry strategy.

This type of government policy continued the tradition seen back in 1912, when the NSW and Federal Governments made an agreement to establish BHP's steelworks at Newcastle, with the relevant infrastructure, and with a Commonwealth Bank loan of £1 million.

Between 1930 and 1941, the Japanese had studied Australia's industrial development. They knew that Australia was producing so much equipment and supplies as to make it a potentially formidable military force.

In March 1942, well before the Battle of the Coral Sea, Japan's Government realised that invading Australia's mainland would have required no fewer than 10 or 12 divisions - beyond Japanese capacity to supply, since most of Japan's merchant shipping was already needed for feeding Japan's own densely populated islands. According to Major-General Shin'Ichi (of the Japanese Army's General Staff), such an invasion would tie up between 1.5 million and two million tons of shipping, almost a third of the country's total shipping capacity of 6.6 million tons.

On March 13, Emperor Hirohito received the Fundamental Outline of Recommendations for Future War Leadership, signed by Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, General Hajime Sugiyama (Army Chief of Staff) and Admiral Osami Nagano (Navy Chief of Staff), informing him of the decision - made on March 4, and confirmed on March 7 - to isolate rather than invade Australia.

The Australian army in 1942 had seven or eight infantry divisions, mostly Citizens' Military Force (CMF) personnel, for her home defence at various levels of readiness.

Each of these divisions consisted of 17,000 men, with far greater access to effective firepower close at hand than a Japanese division of 18,000 men.

The average Australian division was more highly motorised than its Japanese counterpart. It had 140 machine gun carriers; 28 light tanks or armoured cars; 133 cars; 860 vans; 800 lorries; 156 artillery tractors; and a civilian reserve of over 600,000 vehicles, not to mention an extensive rail system.

A Japanese division, by contrast, had 16 armoured reconnaissance vehicles, and relied primarily on horses and bicycles, as well as whatever mechanised transport could be captured en route.

Japan could not necessarily compensate with superior air power for its transport and armament shortcomings on the ground. The Japanese could only afford to field approximately 360 bombers and 240 fighters for any long term campaign in Australia - whereas the RAAF had approximately 315 medium-range bombers and 111 fighters, with 73 other fighters in reserve.

Added to this were 2,139 trainers, 1,000 of which could have been useful for defence.

The role played by Australian industry in determining the military outcome cannot be overstated. Australian manufacturing before the war benefited from a government policy of self-reliance.


By the end of 1942 Australia was producing cruiser tanks, fighters, bombers, small arms, artillery, war ships, and optical equipment.

By the war's end, it had produced (among other things) more than 6,000 Bren gun carriers, 3,500 aircraft, and over 33,000 boats and small ships for the US invasion fleets.

It was President Truman who said: "On balance the contribution by Australia, a country having a population of about seven million, approximately equalled that of the United States."

All this history is within living memory. Yet now there is talk of closing munitions plants such as the one at Mulwala, with the consequent loss of more than 300 jobs.

Already we have lost so much industry: Australian steel mills have closed, ANL has been sold and many of its former ships now trade in other waters, the Timkens roller bearing plant has closed, Williamstown's ship yards may soon close, and the list goes on.

Australia cannot rebuild its defence force without rebuilding its manufacturing sector. If anything is to be learnt from the wars of the 20th century, it is that the nation with the greatest capacity for industrial mobilisation win

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